Know how to spot this highly contagious illness
This year’s deadly flu season has been widely reported, but there’s another lesser-known illness that doctors are seeing in a high number of young children and babies this winter.
It’s called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which produces mild, cold-like symptoms, including coughing, sneezing and a low-grade fever. But it can be serious for infants.
Every year, more than 57,000 children under 5 years old are hospitalized due to RSV infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“It all started with a little cough,” says Alex Jokich, a reporter for KSTP, the ABC station in Minneapolis. “While visiting family over the holidays, we took our daughter, Noelle, to an emergency room in Michigan where she was diagnosed with simply ‘a cough,’ and they sent us home.”
For the next few days, Jokich was completely on edge as her daughter started to have coughing fits.
“Each time, it left me terrified that she couldn’t breathe, and I wondered what I would do if she stopped breathing altogether,” Jokich says. “I made multiple daily calls to her pediatrician’s office. I kind of felt like I was being a ridiculous new mom.”
As she prepared for another trip to Chicago, Jokich remembered she had a “smart sock” device that monitor’s a baby’s oxygen level and heart rate. She grabbed it for the trip.
On Saturday morning, Jokich woke up with a cold chill down her spine and the inkling that something just wasn’t right.
“Noelle hadn’t woken up as much to eat overnight,” says Jokich. “Was she just sleepy because she was trying to fight off her cold? Or was she looking more pale than usual? Did her cough seem worse? Or was I just being paranoid? At what point do I call the pediatrician AGAIN? And at what point am I just a crazy person?”
Jokich checked Noelle’s overnight stats and realized there was a window of time where her average oxygen was 91%. She immediately called her pediatrician.
Over the course of the phone call, Noelle’s oxygen dipped to 89%. That’s when Jokich brought her to Advocate Children’s Hospital’s emergency department, where she was diagnosed with RSV. A few hours after being admitted, Noelle began having chest retractions and trouble breathing. She was moved to the pediatric intensive care unit with bronchiolitis.
“The RSV virus causes inflammation, which can block a baby’s small airway and make it difficult for them to breathe,” explains Dr. Gabriel Aljadeff, a pediatric pulmonologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital. “These higher-risk babies are very prone to RSV, becoming severe and progressing into their lower airways, leading to pneumonia and bronchiolitis.”
Noelle was placed on high flow oxygen, IV fluids and a feeding tube.
“It all felt like a sudden and crazy nightmare,” says Jokich. “She went through brief periods where, even on the max oxygen, she would stop breathing. My poor baby looked so sick, and her dad and I felt so helpless. For days, I couldn’t eat or sleep. I hysterically blamed myself for ever taking her out of the house, for not protecting her from harm, for failing her. I felt like the worst mom in the world, that my beautiful baby ended up in intensive care. I sent up panicked prayers, begging God to help her make a turnaround. And I held her little hand, telling her how strong and brave she was and how much I love her.”
Finally, Noelle began to regain her strength.
“My little peanut was discharged, although the doctors say it could be weeks before she fully recovers,” says Jokich. “At the end of the day, I’m happy we were overly cautious and had a heightened awareness that something wasn’t quite right. We are so grateful to the team at Advocate Children’s, from the ER to the PICU, for recognizing our little girl had RSV and then nursing her back to health. As a parent, having care you can trust is paramount and, in our time of need, we found that at Advocate.”
So what kind of precautions can parents take?
“As with any contagious flu or virus, the key to prevention is through frequent handwashing,” Dr. Aljadeff says. “Parents should also clean and disinfect toys, blankets and other objects that babies are likely to touch.”
“I hope all parents of young kids hear the message about how bad RSV is this year and take all the extra precautions to keep it at bay, even if it feels like overkill,” says Jokich. “This has been a nightmare, and I’m so sad it happened to us, but we are thanking God for baby Noelle’s recovery and wanted to pass along a few little nuggets from our experience. Love your littles. Trust your gut. Count your blessings. We sure are.”
About the Author
Caitlin Ruiz, health enews contributor, is a social media manager at Advocate Health Care in Downers Grove. She earned her BA in broadcast journalism from Columbia College Chicago. When she isn't Facebooking, Instagramming or Tweeting, Caitlin enjoys producing videos, watching scary movies and attending as many Chicago Blackhawks games and country concerts as she can.